September 22, 2016


The 39 Clues Superspecial: Outbreak. By C. Alexander London. Scholastic. $13.99.

Swindle #8: Jingle. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $16.99.

     At long last The 39 Clues appears to be winding down. This highly popular, multi-series sequence that helped promote the notion of books as but one part of a multimedia experience requiring readers to do active mystery-solving online as well as within the novels’ pages, has gone through four complete book sequences, the most recent being Doublecross. Now comes what appears to be a single, standalone novel designated Superspecial, titled Outbreak, written by C. Alexander London, who was also the author of the second Doublecross novel, Mission Hindenburg. This Superspecial differs from the series volumes in various ways, partly in price (it costs a dollar more) and partly in its lack of accompanying cards (real or virtual) to be tied into online activities – although it still provides a Web address at which readers can “find exciting missions and connect with fellow Cahills.” In Outbreak, it is assumed that readers are members of the super-powerful Cahill clan that has managed and manipulated human history for many centuries. Readers need to be familiar with the overall Cahill history for Outbreak to make complete sense. Dan is currently the leader of the Cahills, and in this book is 14 years old (not 11 or 13, as in earlier series); that makes Amy 19, which means she is almost an adult – another sign that this long-running sequence may finally have run long enough. The story of Outbreak is a familiar one in the usual twisty style of The 39 Clues, involving locations around the world, a deadly virus, and a former friend named Sinead Sterling who turned traitor but may have turned back to a Cahill supporter and may be trying to prevent release of the virus instead of trying to arrange for it to destroy the world. The good-or-bad uncertainty is part and parcel of The 39 Clues, as are the globe-hopping and the potentially nefarious deed involving a possibly deadly substance of some sort. Having dutifully, if not very stylishly, contributed to the series before, London pulls Outbreak along in all the expected directions, avoiding any stamp of distinctive style (as all the authors in this series must be careful to do) but being careful to produce enough cliffhangers and turns to keep readers interested, if perhaps not really on edge. Unsurprisingly, the book ends with a dramatic, painful and emotionally wrenching sacrifice that is followed by a suitable twist. More surprisingly, the book actually ends, rather than concluding, as earlier volumes have, with distinct hints of where the series will go next. That could mean The 39 Clues has gone about as far as it can go, or it could mean that future entries will be self-contained, as Outbreak is, rather than part of multi-book sequences. Either way, The 39 Clues has more than made its mark, and if Outbreak does not represent a highly dramatic, bang-up ending, it does show the books concluding – if they have concluded – in much the same way that they have progressed from the start.

     Five of the books in The 39 Clues have been written by Gordon Korman, but ever since Flashpoint, the 2014 conclusion of the Unstoppable series, he has turned his attention elsewhere – for instance, to the Swindle series, which has now reached its eighth volume, Jingle. Yes, this is a Christmas-themed novel, but otherwise it has all the characteristics of its seven predecessors, ranging from the machinations of Griffin Bing (“the man with the plan”) to the barely containable enthusiasm of the Doberman, Luthor. To as great an extent as the books in The 39 Clues, those in the Swindle series feature formulaic plotting and formulaic characters – which means that Jingle will be fun for those who already know Griffin and his comrades, and will be a pretty good entry point to the series for anyone who picks the book up, enjoys it simply as a seasonal read, and at the end wants to know about other books along the same lines. In Jingle, the annoying Logan signs Griffin and pals up without their consent to act as elves in Cedarville’s traditional holiday performance, the Santa’s Workshop Holiday Spectacular. As usual, Logan has his own reasons for this – he wants to be an actor and is trying to raise his chances of getting into the North Shore Players group – but all that really matters here is that the signup gets the plot going. That plot involves all sorts of typical seasonal and Griffin-ish elements, such as a faintly unpleasant biker playing Santa and the usual disagreeableness of abusive classmate/nemesis Darren Vader. What turns this into a mystery – all the Swindle books are mysteries – is the theft of the Star of Prague, a multimillion-dollar-artifact, from atop the tree in the Colchester mansion. At the top of the list of suspects are Griffin and his group, in light of their various over-planned adventures (and consequent run-ins with the law) in the past. Of course this requires Griffin to come up with a plan to find the real thief, and of course the plan needs to be over-complicated and lead to even stronger suspicions being directed at Griffin and company, and of course everything has to come to a climax when the precious object is supposedly destroyed. But of course it is not, the culprit is found, the various skeins of this yarn are suitably untangled, and the scene is set for a new year that is as likely as not to contain another overdone-but-simplistic adventure of Griffin and the gang.

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